From HaGaon Rav Zevadia HaCohen Shlit”a, The Head of the Batei Din in Tel Aviv
(translated by our dear friend Rav Daniel Levy Shlit”a, Leeds UK)
On Shabbat we shall read: “Appoint yourselves judges and police for your tribes in all your settlements that Hashem your G-d is giving you, and make sure they administer honest judgements for the people” (Devarim, 16:18). Every year we read this Parahsa in the first week of Ellul, to remind us to prepare ourselves during this month of mercy and selichot (forgiveness) whilst approaching the Yamim Noraim - which we hope shall be good for us - by making a personal spiritual reckoning, probing how the current year has been. And in what way it is incumbent upon us to mend our ways and improve our actions as we approach the New Year.
Each one of us must appoint a personal judge and officer, at each of the various “gates”. Whether it is his mouth – what goes in it and out of it; his ears – to examine what he hears; his eyes – to examine what he sees, and likewise all of his daily actions, are they standing within the realm of the Torah’s mitzvot between man and Hashem and man and his fellow? This is achieved through learning mussar and a daily spiritual reckoning.
However, most people are busy with the daily grind and their hearts aren’t free to contemplate their situation, therefore our Chachamim instituted during these days the Selichot and blowing the shofar, so that we may momentarily pause the [rat] race of life and begin to contemplate, as we say in the Selichot, “Man! Why do you sleep! Get up and supplicate! Wash yourself! And purify yourself! Do not delay! Before the days pass!”.
It is our duty to begin from this day [a process of] perfecting our ways, and not to ignore these awesome days which are capable of facilitating true teshuva.
Rabbenu Yosef Chaim zt”l (the Ben Ish Chai) relates a beautiful analogy. Four extremely wealthy business partners were steeped in their business affairs which also extended abroad, to the extent that they had no time to manage their home in which they were partners too. Due to the pressures, they hired a housekeeper who would purchase all of the household needs, which included, manufactured food, fresh fruit and vegetables. At the end of each week he would divide the expenditure between the four partners, thereby receiving his reimbursement for the expenses together with his salary.
As time went by the housekeeper realised that they are so busy with their business affairs that they paid no attention to check what he was doing, and so they reimbursed him for whatever he charged them without them checking. So he gradually began to add to the true cost and thereby increase his earnings without their knowledge.
As time passed, one of the wealthy partners realised that the amount the housekeeper was charging for the expenses was inflated. He encouraged his friends to pay attention to the suspicious behaviour that the housekeeper is increasing his earnings from money that he isn’t entitled to.
They devised a plan that over the next few weeks, each of them in turn would accompany the housekeeper to purchase the items and so they will be able to observe what he is up to. And so the following week they informed him that from now on they will join him to shop, each one accompanying him in turn.
When the housekeeper heard this, he shuddered. For now they will expose him and his devious plans. So he immediately began to devise a plan to pre-empt his fate.
When the first wealthy man came with him shopping, the housekeeper said, “What are you coming to the market for, it is squashed, hot and the air quality is poor, there is a great risk that you will be pushed and fall. It is unbefitting for you to endure such abuse.” When the rich man heard this he was taken aback and decided not to go. The housekeeper rejoiced and said, “Baruch Hashem, I got rid of the first one.”.
The second week, the second wealthy man wanted to come, immediately the housekeeper said, “What do you want with a hot and crowded market, it is not befitting you.” But the second wealthy man would not give up and said, “Despite all this, I wish to come!”
They went together to the market, but as soon as they arrived the housekeeper began to tell the wealthy man about the history of the market, he showed him announcements and advertisements, conversing with him in a range of matters related to the market, until they finished their shopping and the wealthy man hadn’t paid attention to the prices and what they had purchased. And so the housekeeper outwitted the second wealthy man.
On the third week the third wealthy man came, and again the housekeeper attempted to dissuade him from coming, but the wealthy man decided to come regardless. When they arrived at the market, the housekeeper began to discuss a range of things in order to distract the wealthy man, but the wealthy man requested from the housekeeper not to say a word, since he wishes to concentrate on the prices. And with this the third wealthy man observed that the prices do not tally with the invoices submitted. The wealthy man asked the housekeeper to explain it. The housekeeper was cunning said to him, “That which you see here as cheap, is because it is class B but I buy class A, which is more expensive, moreover, today the produce is small and therefore cheap but I purchase larger expensive produce, therefore you paid more.” The third wealthy man heard this and went to focus on his daily appointments.
On the fourth week, the turn of the fourth wealthy man arrived to accompany him. Here too, the housekeeper didn’t succeed in convincing him not to come. And he didn’t succeed in diverting his attention from the marketplace. When the wealthy man asked why the prices are much cheaper than his expenses invoice that he submits to them, the housekeeper went over his prepared text that here they are class B and the produce is smaller but what he previously purchased is class A and much larger. But to his shock the wealthy man immediately produced from his pocket the produce from the previous week and proved to the housekeeper that it is in fact exactly the same! Thus proving that the housekeeper doesn’t speak the truth and has stolen from them over a long period of time!
This is analogous to us who are standing in the days of mercy and selichot (forgiveness). The yetzer hara has many opinions, how to leave a person in the daily grind and not to allow an opportunity for true spiritual reckoning and a fitting preparation for the Yamim Noraim.
First he says why do you have to get up early for Selichot, to hear the shofar and words of inspiration, you are a spoilt and tired person, the Bet Kenesset is crowded and hot, stay at home in bed.
Secondly, if he doesn’t succeed and nevertheless the person comes to the Bet Kenesset, he immediately diverts his attention to who is coming in and out, how many lights are lit and how many have gone out, does the air conditioner work and in what direction is it facing, who is asleep and who awake, or he meets a friend and strikes up an animated conversation to the extent that he pays no attention to the Selichot and shofar, and just like he came so he went.
For the third person who came and decided not to pay attention to those around him and instead to focus only on the Selichot and shofar, the yetzer hara says to him, “All that you see and hear is just for the righteous, whose pedigree is class A, these things aren’t aimed at you, a simple fellow who is busy, you are exempt from any change and inspiration.
However the true person who wishes to be inspired and prepare himself really really properly for the Yamim Noraim, he rejects all forms of the yetzer hara’s influences and rejects all of a person’s tendencies to laziness and the daily grind. About such a person it is said, “Let us find our paths and examine them, and return to Hashem,” (Eicha 3:40), Amen.